Leather Straps and Flying Chalk, School Memories from the 1950s

The thought of holding out your hand to be whacked by a teacher held piece of leather provided a powerful reason to behave at school in the 1950s. In New Zealand, where I live, getting the strap was an acceptable form of punishment during my school days. This violent practice has been illegal in New Zealand since 1990, though I do think students had more respect for their teachers when they understood what the physical consequences of misbehaviour would be.

I loved school and I loved my teachers, but nobody is perfect. As hard as I tried to avoid this fearful form of punishment, I managed to find myself in trouble from time to time.  Whenever the teacher called one of us to the front of the room we all sank further down in our seats, hoping we too wouldn’t become his next victim.

Playground misbehaviour and classroom disobedience rated high on the list of offences for which the teacher produced the strap. The victims held out their hands, some trembling with fear. Temptation to pull your hand away as the strap came down resulted in extra whacks.

I usually received the strap for more minor offences, such as talking too much and spelling mistakes. That’s right, for getting my spelling words wrong in the weekly test. I was a good speller, but if I made  careless spelling mistake I received the same punishment as the others.  I didn’t think this fair at all. Tears filled my eyes, even before I felt the impact of the piece of leather.

Another form of punishment that wouldn’t be tolerated in classrooms today involved a piece of flying chalk. If the teacher held a piece of chalk when someone started talking, look out. The chalk flew through the air with such accuracy it landed on the desk beside you. I think we all in admired his skill of landing the chalk just where he wanted it.

A more preferred punishment involved writing lines while others were outside playing, especially during the colder winter months. My teacher liked variety in his choice of punishment though, so it wasn’t worth misbehaving, hoping to be given lines to write, when he could quite easily choose to strap you instead.

My recently published school memoir, ‘West End the Best End – School Memories from the 1950s’ includes discipline and punishment as some of the anecdotal stories of my memories of my school life. Times have changed and former practices are no longer acceptable. At the time, however, none of us questioned the right of our teacher to inflict physical punishment on us. Getting strapped was a part of school life in 1950s New Zealand.

What memories do you have of school punishment in other parts of the world?

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10 thoughts on “Leather Straps and Flying Chalk, School Memories from the 1950s

  1. I had memories of flying chalks Val. I think takes a couple of years to master that skill. However, I’ve never experienced my teacher crumpling onto the floor in front of me… yet. lol. I’ve just reached page 15 of your book. Amusing and fun journey so far.:)

    • Thanks Sharif, good to know the book has reached you safely. I told Karen it’s rare in Singapore – one of two copies there 🙂

  2. Oh what memory’s you arouse Val It was the same in my school only we had to suffer the cane rather than the strap, and unlike you I hated every moment of my school life I couldn’t wait for my 15th birthday so I could leave. before my 16th birthday I was touring Europe with a pop group and I think I learnt more in that first year after school than I ever did in the 10 years of hell at those abhorrent institutions .
    By the time I was 17 I could speak two other languages (I never took languages at school) I learnt how to cook and how to present myself to other cultures and customs, and so on and so on.
    I cant wait to read your book and see another side of school life… as always thanks for an interesting article Val

  3. I went to school in Germany, when I was little and when we came living in the Netherlands, when I was eleven years old, there was a huge difference at school. In Germany we’ve learned respect, sit still with your arms folded and listening, speak with two words and answer only when you allowed to, If you didn’t followed these rules, you had to stand in the corner, in which I’ve never been, because I was a sweet child 🙂 The School in the Netherlands was completely the opposite. There was no respect at all, everybody did what he wanted and the only punishment was to staying in after school and write about a hundred times a sentence. In my mothers’ childhood, they were punished with a slap of the ruler on their hands.

  4. As you so rightly say It was about respect and obedience. I think an added deterrent in our school was the fact that they only had one strap and as the offender you had to go classroom to classroom and politely knock on the door, wait to be invited in, before asking if the teacher had the strap. To me the level of embarrassment that every teacher and kid in the school knew you were about to get it was actually worse than the strap itself.

    It was right to ban corporal punishment in schools because some teachers could and did get carried away and what was intended as a ‘Wake Up Call’ became a beating. Same with the punishments dealt out by parents, it was a mildly painful reminder of the rules and the lines that had been crossed. I was slap as a child, probably more times than I care to admit to, but I was never beaten. That pleasure was reserved for a sadistic headmaster and the threat of a bamboo cane.

    The last time I was asked to give a talk to students was indeed the last, no one was in the least bit interest in what I was talking about, history, they spent the session texting one another, one actually took a phone call on her mobile. Even sarcasm didn’t work, I stopped talking and told her to carry on as it was obviously far more important than what I was saying….. The Bitch thanked me !

    When I asked if there were any questions, there was “Can We Go Now ?”

  5. One of our teachers in the sixties held the chalk between his fingers, then clapped his hands together to send the chalk on it’s way with deadly accuracy. If he was at the blackboard, then the board rubber (a wooden block with felt pads) would often be used instead…

  6. What amazing memories all these comments bring back. I started school in 1969 in Whangarei. These were the days when I think we were born with a basic understanding of respect and courtesy, unlike today. Times have changed. I remember a boy called Lawrence getting the strap for saying “bum”!! How bad was he.
    Various forms of punishment come to mind from school days. The worst in terms of pain was a wooden or stainless steel ruler on its edge across the knuckles. I remember the metal ruler being pinched from the teachers desk and several boys tried to bend it without success. The answer lay across the back fence of the school. The railway tracks. The ruler was placed across one track and the next train did the rest. I think it was 200 lines about being a bit better behaved after the ruler returned to Mr …….. Desk.
    Other punishments: picking up rubbish at lunchtime; the cane (often in front of the other kids); leather strap; various rulers (those 1 metro wooden rulers gave teachers unfair extra reach); standing in a corner; a letter to take home to parents; sweeping the toilets out; picking up oak tree leaves until the were none left (very enjoyable in the first frosty days of late Autumn); ears being pulled; staying in class during breaks; being stood down from Saturday sports (that really did hurt).
    Another memory I have, nothing to do with punishment or discipline, is the smells of school.
    Rain on the asphalt courts, playing fields being mown, the school incinerator burning, teachers bad breath, certain rubbers(erasers), marker pens, the smell of 40 wet kids on the bus, the smell of farts when confined to the inside of the crammed bus ( every day someone let one go); and one that we have just been talking about recently is the smell of the purple printed pages we used to get.
    I have been wracking my memory for what we called this back then. I loved that smell. Can someone tell me what it was called?
    Good memories, thanks for stirring them up.

  7. You’ve been hard at work to get your book done. Congratulations on that milestone. I’m putting together some of my mother’s memories for a book about her 1940s years. For April, I’m going to try blogging every day on her memory blog.

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